O'Hara's Draft Preview: Rating wide receivers and tight ends

Posted Apr 11, 2013

In the second installment of his draft preview series, Detroitlions.com columnist Mike O'Hara rates the top wide receivers and tight ends available

Tavon AustinWR Tavon Austin

Despite his diminutive size – 5-8 and 174 pounds – Tavon Austin is impossible to overlook because of how he has dominated games against giant-sized defenders intent on stopping him.

Austin is one of the smaller but faster – and better – prospects in this year’s NFL draft. He’ll stand up to any change.

“I’ve been a little guy my whole life,” Austin said at the NFL Combine workouts earlier this year. “I’m a little guy, but I play big.”

From athletic powerhouse Dunbar High School outside Washington D.C., through his college career at West Virginia, Austin has piled bigger stats on big stats.

He led Dunbar to three straight Maryland state championships, rushing for 7,962 yards and 123 touchdowns. As a senior he rushed for 2,660 yards, 34 TDs and a 12.2-yard average.

His last two seasons at West Virginia were spectacular – 101 catches and eight TDs in 2011, 114 catches and 12 TDs in 2012.

His most memorable performance of 2012 was on the road against Oklahoma. He was moved to running back and responded with 21 carries for 344 yards and two TDs, four receptions for 82 yards and another 146 yards on eight kickoff returns.

“It kind of reminded me of my high school days,” Austin said at the Combine. “That was the first game I played running back that whole year.”

Austin is so dynamic and elusive in the open field that of the 15 TDs he scored last season rushing and receiving, one analyst said he would have scored most of them had the defense been playing two-hand touch. That’s how hard it was to get a hand on Austin.

Austin goes against the recent trend of teams searching for bigger, faster wide receivers.

Lions superstar Calvin Johnson has the prototype physical stature for what teams are seeking. Megatron is 6-5, 239 pounds, with blazing speed.

In the last four drafts, from 2008-2012, the first receiver drafted has been at least 6-1.

Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State, taken fifth overall last year by the Jaguars, is the shorty of the last four drafts at 6-1, 207. In 2011, A.J. Green (6-4, 211) went to the Bengals with the fourth pick. In 2010, the Broncos tabbed another Georgia Tech alum, Demaryius Thomas (6-3, 229) with the 22nd pick. And in 208, the Raiders went for size and speed – and failed – by taking Darrius Heyward-Bey (6-2, 205) of Maryland with the seventh pick.

Players with Austin’s size and skill set often are considered gimmicks or part-time players. Austin did a lot of everything at West Virginia. He played wide receiver, running back and returned punts and kickoffs.

He excelled at all of it.

“He’s a football player,” one scout said of Austin after his ultra-impressive workout at the NFL Combine in February.

A succession of 40-yard dash times posted by receivers and defensive backs at the Combine looked almost like Olympic Trials sprints. They were that impressive.

Austin was timed in an unofficial time of 4.25 seconds. It later was adjusted to an official time of 4.34 seconds, which was more than fast enough to confirm his status as a high first-round prospect.

There is speed and size at the receiver position this year. Austin is the only receiver in the top half dozen prospects who is under 6 feet.

The tight end class has size and speed at the top, led by Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert. At 6-6 and 250 pounds, Eifert ran the 40 in 4.65 seconds.

Dion Sims of Michigan State is an intriguing mid-round prospect, and possibly higher, because of his 4.68 time in the 40 to go with his size – 6-5 and 268 pounds, about 20 pounds less than his playing weight at Michigan State.

There is a growing premium on tight ends with speed and receiving ability. If they can stay on the field in spread sets, using four and five receivers, they cause matchup problems against safeties and linebackers.

In the Lions’ case, they often have had tight end Tony Scheffler line up at receiver in some formations to use his ability to stretch defenses and get mismatches because of his size and reach.

Following are my ratings for the top receivers and tight ends in the draft, with comments on each player, and other issues involving where the Lions stand on the position. Each player’s height, weight and time in the 40-yard dash is included:

1. Tavon Austin, West Virginia, 5-9/179, 4.28: A small package with gigantic stats. Moved inside as a receiver in 2011 and caught 101 passes. Led the nation that season in all-purpose yards, 198 per game. Fared even better in 2012, catching 114 passes and averaging 223.9 yards in total offense

2. Cordarelle Paterson, Tennessee, 6-2/216, 4.33: Set the Tennessee record one-season record in 2012 with 1,858 all-purpose yards and scored at least one TD four different ways – receiving, running and punt and kickoff returns.

3. Keenan Allen, Cal, 6-2/206, 4.53: His game tape has to overshadow a lackluster 40-yard time of 4.71 seconds at his pro day workout. An excellent high school athlete in North Carolina and was ranked the nation’s top safety. As a senior he had eight interceptions and 53 offensive TDs. For Cal, 98 catches in 2011 and 61 in 2012 when a knee injury caused him to miss three starts.

4. Justin Hunter, Tennessee, 6-4/196, 4.36: A true freshman in 2010, played all 13 games with two starts and 16 receptions. His size is an obvious attraction to scouts, but he combines it with speed. Led the Vols with 73 catches in 2012 while playing opposite Patterson. Impressive 11-4 standing broad jump at the Combine, and 39.5 vertical jump.

5. Robert Woods, Southern Cal, 6-1/201, 4.42: Two-way player in high school, and broke in impressively in 2010 with a team-leading 65 catches. He was the first true freshman to start a season-opener at Southern Cal since the end of World War II. Had 111 catches in 2011 and 76 in ’12.

6. DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson, 6-1/214/4.51: Versatile high school athlete, all state cornerback and in basketball while leading team to South Carolina state championship as a senior. Played basketball briefly at Clemson as a true freshman and led the football team with 52 receptions. In 2012 had 82 catches and set the ACC record with 18 TDs.

7. Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech., 6-0/204, 4.48: Came up big against big-time competition in 2012, catching 21 passes for 233 yards and four TDs in a 59-57 loss to Texas A&M. For the season, caught 104 passes with 13 TDs.

8. Terrance Williams, Baylor, 6-2/208, 4.48: Big senior season, leading Division I with 1,832 receiving yards on 97 catches with 12 TDs. Started 35 games his last three years and steadily became more productive.

9. Markus Wheaton, Oregon St., 5-11/189, 4.40: Has a track background, running the 200 meters in college. Had 73 catches in 2011, 91 in 2012 and holds the school record with 227 career receptions.

10. Aaron Dobson, Marshall, 6-3/210, 4.43: It’s hard to get noticed in West Virginia because of Austin’s presence, but Dobson got some attention with 49 catches in 2011 and 57 in ’12.

Others: Da’Rick Rogers, Tennessee Tech.; Ryan Swope, Texas A&M; Marquise Goodwin, Texas; Steadman Bailey, West Virginia; Tavarres King, Georgia.

Lions wide receiver depth chart: Calvin Johnson is coming off record-setting season of 1,964 yards on 122 catches. Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles are coming off season-ending injuries – broken leg and knee ligament respectively. Mike Thomas, acquired in a trade last season, will compete in the slot. Kris Durham, a teammate of Matthew Stafford’s at Georgia, got playing time late in the season.

Among others competing for roster spots is Devin Thomas, a former second-round pick by Washington in 2008 who was signed in the offseason. Thomas was out of football in 2012 and has only three catches since 2009.

Lions draft probability: They might not draft a receiver early, but they’ll likely take one after the third round if not sooner. Injuries to Burleson and Broyles are a concern, and there is a need for an outside receiver opposite Johnson.

Whether he plays inside or outside, Austin would be an ideal addition because of his dynamic return skills, but he’ll be long gone before the Lions make their second-round pick.

Tyler EifertTE Tyler Eifert

1. Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame, 6-6/250, 4.65: It’s hard to project backward a player of his size, but Eifert was an All-State defensive back in high school in Indiana. Took over as ND’s starting TE midway through 2010 when Kyle Rudolph went out with an injury. In his last two seasons he had 113 catches, nine TDs.

2. Zach Ertz, Stanford, 6-5/249, 4.68: Has a high school basketball background in California. After 27 catches in 2011, blossomed in ’12 with 69.

3. Gavin Escobar, San Diego St., 6-6/264, 4.78: Another California high school prospect with a basketball background. Second on the team in 2011 with 51 catches and didn’t miss any time after fracturing left hand. Caught 42 passes in 2012.

4. Vance McDonald, Rice, 6-4/267, 4.60: Played receiver and tight end in 2010 and had 11 starters at receiver in 2011, catching 45 passes. Had 36 catches in 2012, with five starts at receiver and five at tight end.

5. Travis Kelce, Cincinnati, 6-5/255, 4.64: As a high school player in Ohio, played quarterback three years along with basketball and baseball. Missed all of 2010 in a suspension, reportedly for failing a drug test. Only 13 catches in 2011 but 45 and eight TDs in 2012.

Others: Jordan Reed, Florida; Dion Sims, Michigan State; Nick Kasa, Colorado; Ryan Otten, San Diego St.; Levine Toilolo, Stanford; Chris Gragg, Arkansas.

Lions depth chart: Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler are both back, but neither played up to previous levels. Pettigrew dropped from 83 catches in 2011 to 59, his lowest total since his rookie season. He is a free agent after this year. Scheffler had 42 catches but only one TD after six in 2011, and he wasn’t quite as sure-handed.

Will Heller, a valued third tight end who also plays a combination H-back fullback, is a free agent.

Lions draft probability: In the last 10 years, the Lions have drafted only two tight ends – Pettigrew and Dan Gronkowski, both in 2009.